Everybody knows that there are millions of people in the world they will never meet. Awash in our routines and daily interactions, it is easy to forget just how anonymous we really are. Even the reach of many celebrities only extends so far. For every big fish in a small pond, there is an even bigger small-fish in a big pond. Wrap your head around that.
Thankfully, we do not need to dwell on our anonymity. In most cases, all it takes is one person to make us feel special. And if you have more than one, then you are well-off indeed. Yet there are certain situations which make me feel a little more anonymous than usual.
Below is a short list of anonymity-affirming scenarios that I have experienced. Many of them have links that illustrate my point (in case you do not feel anonymous enough already). These are in no particular order:
1. Seeing myself in the background of someone else’s photo. This happens sometimes on social media. We took our son to an Easter egg hunt at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville. I’ve met the pastor, but I wouldn’t say that we really know each other. He posted a photo of the hunt on Instagram, and, sure enough, there I was, passing through the left side of the frame.
2. Eating at a busy restaurant in New York City. At Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, they seated us at a long table with a bunch of strangers. While this strategy may encourage interaction for some, it only ramped up the anxiety for this introvert. By the way, if you have a negative view of introversion, you should read “23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert”.
4. Seeing a longtime favorite band in concert. Click here to read a prose poem I wrote about this experience.
5. Attending a college graduation ceremony (see photo above). This year, my sister-in-law graduated from college. At the ceremony, my aunt-in-law leaned over and commented about how “all these people” (ourselves included) are just a “blip on the radar” of how many people there are in the world. She was right, and I could not stop thinking that here were hundreds of people that I have never seen before, and they have never seen me before, and it is likely that none of us will ever meet.
In conclusion, I need to say that the intention of this post is not to make anyone feel insignificant or unimportant. Everyone matters. As mentioned before, we operate on an individual-to-individual basis, thankfully. But I find that it is healthy for my ego when I remember that I am part of a very big world. That there are millions of people experiencing life through their own personal lenses. It’s not all about me. So, here’s to anonymity.
Gary had an important job. It was respectable enough. Whenever someone outside the factory asked about it, he always impressed. The terms involved had a way of sounding–specialized. In truth, the work was specialized, though the superiors of the upper floor rarely saw this. What they saw, firing accusatory glances at us from an interior window, were profit margins and bottom lines and various other abstractions of vague financiality. In times of restlessness, the bosses would flex their authoritarian muscles by descending to the plant floor and solving problems that didn’t exist. Gary avoided this meddling inasmuch as he was able. After all, he did fine work, and this is what he would insist upon if ever his compliance with policy was in doubt. It’s true, though, about the good work; the products of his workstation benefitted people. So if he was to be watched–he and his coworkers alike–as if on probation (I know this is how he felt), at least he could be proud of his work.
My own station was a couple of units over. I could see the bosses glaring from the little window, but it didn’t bother me in the same way it bothered Gary. Nevertheless, when he would rail in private against the ever-multiplying, nonsensical corporate initiatives, I was right there with him. Remember what I said about solving problems that didn’t exist? Well, the company was afflicted with this recreation, from headquarters in I-don’t-remember-what city all the way down to our little plant.
One day there was a meeting announced by the supervisors. These occasional meetings were called “roundtable discussions,” a ridiculous epithet calculated to imply equal status for all employees, as if everyone’s opinions would be considered. Gary and I rolled many an eye at the mention of these. Attendance was not always required, so I stayed behind to work, thinking that Gary would relay anything pertinent. But he never came back. I saw the others returning. Familiar, sarcastic voices out of sight behind the workstations said things like “culture of excellence” and “we’re all in this together,” followed by mocking laughter. The very use of such phrases only showed how out-of-touch the higher-ups were with the rest of us. I thought that maybe he got sick and went home early. When he didn’t show up the next day, I asked my super about him. The super stared at me as though I was speaking French. That was it–no explanation. Now I know. That is just how people tend to disappear around here.
*This is a departure from my usual posts in that it is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental. No, really. It is.
The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality. To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case. Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite. It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed. It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture. Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels). He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain. Yet we watch him anyway. There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach. And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding. There is something electrifying about his presence. There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist. His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.
Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny. The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes). In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive. It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear. Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle? Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined? It matters less whether the carny actually feels free. It is the perception of freedom that matters. Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another. The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not. The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls. So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo). Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is. Their names tend to come with a caveat: “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…” Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor. I just love him.” Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.
By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent. The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent. It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety. Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large. In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it. These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive. Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules. We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away. Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure. Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable. And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”). Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive. Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?
Amy Winehouse. Digital image. People. 2007. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.people.com/people/amy_winehouse/0,,,00.html>
Donna Reed. Digital image. Women large jaw. N.d. Web. 11 March 2013. <www.womenlargejaw.com/node/2154>.
Reality star Jesse James. Digital image. San Marcos Mercury. 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 11 March 2013. <snmercury.com/2012/09/14/reality-star-jesse-james-to-appear-at-thunderhill-races/>.
“Spring Break.” Northern Exposure: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael. Dir. Rob Thompson. Universal Studios, 2006. DVD.
Tom Hanks On HBO Pics. Digital image. Your Stuff Work. 2011. Web. 11 March 2013. <yourstuffwork.blogspot.com/2011/11/tom-hanks-on-hbo-pics.html>.